Conceptualism and populism

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The quote above is from “Escape Attempts,” the prologue of art critic Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, an account of Conceptual Art’s emergence in the late 1960s. It reminded me of what I was trying to get it in these posts about alt lit and Tumblr as staging ground for community-building as art practice. I want to treat them as the return of Conceptual Art in a new, technologized guise. Lippard defines conceptual art as “work in which the idea is paramount and the material form is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious, and/or ‘dematerialized.’ ” To me, that sounds like a description of art practices on Tumblr, which is as ephemeral and dematerialized as can be. Often it aspires to unpretentiousness as well — not much pretension in the craft of making an image macro or gif. It purports to stand outside the traditional art world and be open to everyone.

Conceptual Art, like Tumblr, posited a DIY art world without the institutional baggage, where people make art fast and pure and circulate it through spontaneous, ad hoc channel, reaching “real” audiences beyond the art world who “really” need the invigorating, therapeutic balm of art:

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Likewise, on Tumblr, direct relations between artists and audiences allow them all to assuage their loneliness or powerlessness in the face of “existing information networks” and the privilege they enshrine.

But whereas traditionally, democratizing the art world was a matter of letting talent trump  connectedness, on Tumblr, connectedness is by default an important formal element in everything posted there. The “notes” are listed right with the work. Far from allowing talent to escape being eclipsed by networking skill, It foregrounds networking skill as a huge part of craft. The barriers of participation are much lower, but the nature of participation is skewed toward making connections rather than art. If your post has no notes, you didn’t actually make it. In that Cluster mag conversation I mentioned in the previous post, Molly Soda says, “Reblogs. Favs. If nobody reblogs you, you’re worthless. Say you had a blog and no one ever looked at it, but you wrote on it everyday and posted what you thought was interesting content—would you keep doing it if no one looked at it?”

To address the tension between making things and connecting, the artists in a community can adopt as a norm a supposedly inclusive disposition meant to undermine elitism and the emphasis on who you know. With alt lit, it seems that earnestness is supposed to be the formal marker of inclusiveness; with other kinds of Tumblr art, the populist gestures can manifest as ironic attacks on the shibboleths of the tech world or traditional art market. Sometimes these two different approaches work off of each other — the earnestness as an “authentic” alternative to the jaded posturing of the ironists; the irony as liberatingly impersonal alternative to the humid narcissism of the earnest.

But in the end these dispositions are not inherently inclusive or liberating or democratic. The network form that Tumblr imposes and that users can integrate into their work doesn’t automatically confer populism, “community” or “accessibility.” Instead it can put brackets around “community” and threaten to turn it into a concept, an art subject rather than an effect that art has on an audience. In other words, making connections becomes synonymous with making art. Being social in itself becomes the art practice, as in relational aesthetics.

Lippard writes as a disillusioned former enthusiast for the democratic potential of conceptual art, whose “dematerialization of the art object” she hoped would protect artists from the corruption of the art market.

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But the conceptual artists were soon assimilated, and their ephemera sold on the market as totems of their creative aura. Lippard concludes that “clearly whatever minor revolutions in communications have been achieved by the process of dematerializing the object” — and for that we can read “digitizing the object” or “embracing social media” — “art and artist in a capitalist society remain luxuries.”

This is what capitalism does in its process of co-optation. It turns genuine efforts at “democratic outreach” and inclusive creativity into bastions of reinvigorated privilege, often against the will of those being invested with privilege almost behind their backs. The “broader audience” — the one that might have engaged art in a way that bypasses the cultural capital and class habitus traditionally necessary to “appreciate” art correctly — gets turned off, or is abandoned. Instead, a new generation of art-world insiders is forged by their very determination to remain outside.

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